Britain ends long Brexit journey with economic break from EU

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People raise a glass and celebrate in Parliament Square as the bell known as Big Ben strikes 2300, and Britain ends its transition period and formally leaves the European Union in London, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on gatherings people were moved on by police if they met in any number .(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON – Britain’s long and sometimes acrimonious divorce from the European Union ended Thursday with an economic split that leaves the EU smaller and the U.K. freer but more isolated in a turbulent world.

Britain left the European bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services at 11 p.m. London time, midnight in Brussels, completing the biggest single economic change the country has experienced since World War II. A different U.K.-EU trade deal will bring new restrictions and red tape, but for British Brexit supporters, it means reclaiming national independence from the EU and its web of rules.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose support for Brexit helped push the country out of the EU, called it “an amazing moment for this country.”

“We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it,” he said in a New Year’s video message.

The break comes 11 months after a political Brexit that left the two sides in the limbo of a “transition period” — like a separated couple still living together, wrangling and wondering whether they can remain friends. Now the U.K. has finally moved out.

It was a day some had longed for and others dreaded since Britain voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, but it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. U.K. lockdown measures to curb the coronavirus curtailed mass gatherings to celebrate or mourn the moment, though a handful of Brexit supporters defied the restrictions to raise a toast outside Parliament as the Big Ben bell sounded 11 times on the hour.

A free trade agreement sealed on Christmas Eve after months of tense negotiations ensures that Britain and the 27-nation EU can continue to buy and sell goods without tariffs or quotas. That should help protect the 660 billion pounds ($894 billion) in annual trade between the two sides, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it.

But companies face sheaves of new costs and paperwork, including customs declarations and border checks. Traders are struggling to digest the new rules imposed by the 1,200-page trade deal.